Richard Sharpe: Canada’s first Emancipation Day

Richard Sharpe

The Floyd Effect: Taking Stock on Canada’s First Emancipation Day

On August 1, 2021, Canada will officially recognize Emancipation Day for the first time. It marks the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act which came into effect across the British Empire in 1834.

But I am left wondering about its significance when Black lives continue to be dispensable. The unfortunate truth is that the kind of violence that resulted in George Floyd’s death has happened thousands of times before and will happen thousands of times again, in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere.

I have been engaged in Black community work for more than two decades, and I am used to seeing atrocities inflicted upon Black bodies.

But this killing was different.

I was unable to watch the video of George Floyd being murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, the almost 10-minute chronicling of death, in its entirety. I remember thinking, “This man is going to die.” As we all know, he did.

I found myself unable to function during the days following. My colleagues were equally traumatized, our pain compounded by the protests sweeping the United States and Canada. We realized we needed to take time off. To grieve. To reflect. To commiserate.

“Normalized anti-black racism” within every institution was how Canada was described in the United Nations Report of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its mission to Canada in 2016. Floyd’s death, and the global uprisings that resulted, shone a spotlight on anti-black racism everywhere, including here. Everyone became more aware of what it is like to be Black in Canada.

My typical response to this kind of brutality is to channel my rage into constructive engagements within our communities and allied spaces. But this time, I was paralyzed. I lay on my bed for hours, counted the stucco on the ceiling and brooded about the state of Black life in North America. The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach intensified the night after Floyd’s death, when I sat down at the dinner table with my family. All three of my beautiful children were angry and heartbroken after witnessing the social media posts of our brother calling for his mother and daughter as he died.

Until now, the Canadian reflex, in the face of racial tensions, has been to fall back on how multicultural and tolerant we are as a nation and to hold up the Charter of Rights and Freedoms with its promise of equality for all. Yet Canada’s caste system is subtle and complex, materializing through hierarchies of race. More “desirable” visible minorities can enjoy some privilege here until something like a virus surfaces and effectively demonizes their communities. 

There is growing inequality in this country. Statistics Canada data confirms that Black people are suffering generational decline, under virtually every socio-economic indicator, that no other demographic experiences. This in contrast with our brethren and sistren on the African continent who, before Covid-19 were racing into an economic renaissance. Why are Black people not seeing the same promise here in Canada?

The fact that dozens of Black and Indigenous men and women have been killed by police in US and Canadian cities since that lethal world changing May 25, 2020 encounter in Minneapolis is further proof of the systemic nature of the problem.

“Why do they have to kill us?” my 15 year old daughter lamented, somewhat rhetorically. She’s usually the joyful, quiet, cerebral one. Her face and body language expressed so much anguish in that moment. I reverted to my usual explanation of the roots of anti-Black racism, that this was part of a continuum of violence that is perpetrated against us people from the African diaspora. We’ve had this conversation many times before. And it was not the first time that I felt incapable of protecting my children from anti-Black violence. As a parent, I had come to believe we can only prepare our children to succeed in this world by facilitating self-knowledge and resilience, teaching the history of our people and imparting strategies around resistance.

But this time was different.

“They should burn the shit down,” my son said angrily, referring to the people who were amassing to protest the first night after the killing. I of course counselled against tit-for-tat violence. But I understood his frustration, especially after his opportunity to pursue his budding soccer career was being stymied due to COVID-19. And now he was confronted with this reminder that we can be killed for something as small as using an alleged counterfeit bill at a convenience store.

Canada’s caste system

A few days later, the full impact of the moment was becoming even more apparent: the eruption of a global Civil Rights movement not seen since the 1960s. Perhaps most remarkable to me was how white people have been affected by Floyd’s killing. Suddenly, there was an outpouring of support with thousands of Canadians marching through the nation’s streets chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police”.

We all saw, in that slow motion 8 minutes and 46 seconds, what most Black folk know implicitly, and what Black Canadians have been saying for more than two generations: that white supremacist agents of the state routinely bleed the life out of our Black bodies. It is a daily occurrence in this country, and not just at the hands or under the knee of law enforcement. It occurs figuratively through policies, procedures and practices that permeate every institution, that relegates Black people to the lowest level of Canada’s caste system…next to our Indigenous brothers and sisters.

And while I understood their anger, I cautioned my children about the effectiveness of violent protests. “Riots never benefit our communities,” I said to them, even though I know this was not entirely true. No successful struggle for human rights has ever come about exclusively through peaceful dialogue. Despite what we are taught about the non-violent struggles of the likes of Martin Luther King Junior and Mahatma Gandhi, history has demonstrated that it is through violent uprisings that true freedom is won. It is strewn with the bodies of men and women who engaged in armed struggle for freedom and liberty – the Second World War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, the Jamaican Slave revolts, and the American Civil Rights struggle – all destructive and deadly conflicts that preceded negotiations for peace, personhood and independence. Rioting, and looting were all part of those hard-won rights.

Martin Luther King Junior said that rioting is the voice of the unheard. The aftermath of George Floyd’s death left me wondering. Now that their voices had been heard, was there a constructive, non-violent way that Canadians could see our way through to creating the just society that we hold up as our self-image?

Just as when we go through that childhood disappointment upon realizing Santa Claus is not real, so is it an existential revelation when the illusion of a just Canadian society is laid bare. White people have taken that bitter red pill that makes it impossible to un-see and un-remember what they had just witnessed – Black oppression and racial injustice is all around us.

From white supremacy to institutional indifference

These systems were first put in place by Canada’s founding fathers, and they were built on an ideology of white supremacy.

In an August 21, 2012 Maclean’s article, Aaron Wherry examines whether Canada’s first prime minister was a white supremacist. He cites historian Timothy Stanley who noted that in 1885, John A. Macdonald told the House of Commons that, if the Chinese were not excluded from Canada, “the Aryan character of the future of British America should be destroyed … This was the precise moment in the histories of Canada and the British Dominions when Macdonald personally introduced race as a defining legal principle of the state,” Stanley wrote.

Canadians now know that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was created in the 1870s to corral Indigenous people on their North American Bantustans and prevent them from benefiting off of their ancestral lands. Similarly, the Ontario Provincial Police was originally instituted to ensure enslaved Africans in new Canada did not venture too far from their enslavers. Those identity cards, checked generation after generation, were the precursor to modern day carding. That police forces continue to advocate for a continuation of this human rights violation is a testament to the fact that it is hard to change the behaviour of an institution that is simply doing what it was created to do. Policing was never intended to ensure the safety of Black and Indigenous people in this country.

Carding is the modern day manifestation of anti-Black racism that has brought us to a societal crossroad. Yet carding and over-policing of our communities is but one example of systemic racial bias.

We have seen recent examples of glaring institutional indifference with regards to the impacts of COVID-19 on Black and indigenous lives. Before the pandemic forced us into lockdown, Black healthcare and community leaders rang the alarm that COVID-19 would have a disproportionate impact on Black and racialized Canadians. After we watched 50% of Canada’s health care workers who were Black and racialized dying after being exposed to this virus, we now realize how important race-based health data would be to inform protective measures that could have averted the crisis in racialized communities. Until this point, many institutions stated that the collection of race-based healthcare data was not necessary.

The speed with which billions of dollars were made available to support Canadians during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic shows what we can do as a nation when crisis meets strong leadership and commitment to act. Processes were established, legislation developed, passed and cheques were in the hands of Canadians, fortunately within days. Black communities are looking for similar intentional action to help put out the fire and rebuild the Black house in the neighborhood of Canada.

On June 29, 2020, there was a glimmer of hope when the Members of Parliament Black Caucus and its allies in the House of Commons released a strongly worded statement calling for sweeping action to address anti-Black racism in public safety and the judicial system, for disaggregated race-based data collection, and for economic inclusion, including a response to our chronic underrepresentation within the federal public service.

Over a year later, we are now seeing some progress to address the systemic inequities experienced by Black communities. In January 2021, the Clerk of the Privy Council Office issued a Call to Action on Anti-Racism, Equity, and Inclusion, which for the first time put a public service wide focus on addressing the underrepresentation, career development and training needs of Black federal workers. This is a good first step, because the public service needs to set an example by addressing anti-Black racism within its own ranks. Governments cannot appropriately address the distinct needs of Black Canadians without having us represented, involved and leading the development of federal policies and implementation of programs.

In April 2021, the federal budget was tabled and earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to support Black entrepreneurs and communities. These institutional efforts are a welcome development to correct the generational slide of Black communities.

After the tireless efforts of people like Senator Wanda Thomas BernardBlack communities in Nova Scotia and others across the country, we now have an Emancipation Day Act. This is the first piece of legislation to address the end of the institution of Black enslavement since the Canadian government’s adoption in January 2018, of the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). August 1, 2021 will be the first time Canada will focus on Black history outside the shortest and coldest month of the year.

Realizing that non-action in face of oppression, translates into complicity in maintaining a status quo that dehumanizes all of us, people are finally pushing themselves and governments to act. 

The diversity and inclusion illusion

During the first week following George Floyd’s death, Black organizations were inundated with requests on how to deal with the aftermath. The Federal Black Employee Caucus, one of the organizations that I was co-leading at the time received numerous calls from Black federal public service employees, white managers, visible minority network representatives and Deputy Ministers. Some of these calls were expressions of solidarity; however, the vast majority were also seeking support for how to deal with the reality of anti-Black racism, or looking for tools and resources to have these new uncomfortable conversations. We received a number of media interview requests, all asking questions like “Could this happen here in Canada?”

What has been most glaring throughout this moment has been the absence of tools and language within Canada’s institutions to have these conversations about anti-Black racism and how it manifests within our workplaces and the wider society. It is apparent that the Diversity and Inclusion narratives that have steadily replaced the discourse on equity and human rights over the last 20 years are woefully inadequate.

Diversity and Inclusion is the policy version of “All Lives Matter”. In order for this melting pot, let’s-all-just-get-along, treat-everyone-equally policy to work, Black lives and the distinct issues that encompass our existence in this country are effectively minimized, erased and ignored. We are not included in Diversity and Inclusion policies, except in the most performative of ways.

As an example, the report of the 2017 Joint Union/Management Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, which provides policy direction on diversity in the federal public service makes not a single mention of Black or people of African descent, even when this group makes up 20% of the “so-called” visible minority employee population.

This despite the fact that in the same year, the United Nations provided 42 recommendations on how Canada could address societal anti-Black racism. They included a recommendation for Black people to be designated as a “distinct group” given our history of being enslaved, forced to endure years of Jim Crow-like segregation and other institutional and structural inequities. While other racialized groups have benefited and advanced during the Diversity and Inclusion illusion years, people of African descent continue to be marginalized and discriminated against at higher levels than others.

So how best to support Black Lives? We need to do more than attending marches, writing letters, posting tweets and taking a knee to make progress to address anti-Black racism in our workplaces and society.

Allyship and co-conspirators in support of Black lives

For individuals and organizations to show true allyship, they need to:

  • Do the work – Learn about different cultures, peoples, their histories and contributions, and the role oppression plays in lives of Black, indigenous and racialized people.
  • Take a pledge – If you are not being anti-racist in your individual actions then you are perpetuating the status quo, which is inherently racist and founded on the ideology of white supremacy. There’s no middle ground.
  • Listen to Black people – Without judgement, without questioning, without fear.
  • Ask Black folk how you can help – Without prejudice, without imposing your own ideas, without fear, and then take action.
  • Believe Black people when they bring revelations that they have been victims of racist or discriminatory treatment – The gift of the Me Too movement is that we are now somewhat more inclined to believe white women when they come forward with allegations of sexual harassment or discrimination. All equity seeking and marginalized groups need to be believed. The burden of proof should be on the accused not the victim.
  • Create safe space – Support the establishment of Black led groups within your organization and make room for them to provide input on programs, policy development and strategic planning initiatives, as with other equity-seeking advisory committees within the organization. This safe space is intended for Black folk and others to have conversations about racism and anti-Black racism. It needs to be Black-led where possible and not controlled by management.
  • Ensure that in the employment equity and diversity plans your organizations put in place there is a component focused on addressing anti-Black racism. Focus on systemic and institutional change. Don’t settle for performative allyship.
  • Embody Black inclusion by ensuring Black, Indigenous and Racialized people are part of decision making on social, economic and health policy development. White supremacy operates through systems of exclusion. Ask yourselves who’s not in the room.
  • Establish measures that you will track and report on to your management colleagues and staff in order to evaluate progress and to hold yourselves accountable. Measures can include equity seeking group representation, career development, levels of perceived racism, etc.

What leadership in eradicating anti-Black racism looks like:

  • Leaders that take on this work must overcome the fear of dealing with the hard and complex reality of racism and the fear of making mistakes while addressing it.
  • Focus on inequitable outcomes at both the individual and institutional level. Commit to demonstrable results.
  • Invest in disaggregated data and use it as the basis of your planning, report on progress, establish measures and evaluate results.
  • Ensure that Equity, Diversity and Inclusion champions are chosen by equity seeking groups within workplaces, not appointed by senior management. True champions should have some skin in the game and be endorsed by the community they are supporting.
  • Use available legislative instruments to uphold and promote equity and human rights. Remember, instruments such as the Employment Equity ActHuman Rights Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms all support measures to promote equity and human rights in your workplaces.
  • If you don’t name it, you will never be able to address it. White supremacy, anti-Black racism, oppression and critical race theory need to be part of your lexicon. Being able to articulate the challenge positions you to understand and overcome it.
  • Communicate your vision, initiatives and progress against key metrics to staff, communities and unions. Keep your people regularly informed and engaged on your efforts.
  • Remember Diversity and Inclusion as a concept is aspirational. Root your efforts in principles of equity and human rights to get real results.
  • Commit to these initiatives beyond this “Floyd Effect” moment. It has taken decades to create this reality. It will take more than this moment to establish and sustain the change that is necessary to safeguard our collective humanity.

Losing the Oppression Olympics

The “Oppression Olympics” is the practice of pitting marginalized groups against each other. It plays out through the near constant refrain that we cannot focus on anti-Black racism efforts because it allegedly leaves out other equity seeking groups. This is a false narrative. The goal of equity and human rights is not a zero sum game. A culture of scarcity feeds divisions within groups. There is enough equity and human rights for everyone.

The argument that we should not focus on the issues of Black people is intended to silence Black voices. We do not hear these same calls for “inclusiveness” when addressing the distinct issues of other groups. The fact is, the two groups that are most marginalized in Canada are Indigenous peoples and people of African descent. When the principles of universal design are employed, we see that efforts to address equity for the most marginalized in a society ultimately benefits all.

This is where the narratives on intersectionality are important to understand but so oftentimes miss the mark. We cannot talk about women, LGBTQ2S+, persons with disability, seniors and youth without a Black / race lens being applied. Black and indigenous people are part of every identity group, and are at the bottom of them all.

The equity and human rights of all equity seeking groups can be addressed at the same time. But feed the starving before nourishing the hungry.

Divide and conquer tactics have been successful around the world in promoting divisions between equity seeking groups. Unfortunately, we have been playing the Oppression Olympics through Diversity and Inclusion activities for almost two decades. During this time, which groups have actually benefited and who has been left behind? This is a game we should refuse to play.

The Promise of Emancipation Day

It is encouraging to see white, Indigenous and racialized peoples, collectively demanding change. They are calling for fairness and justice for Black and Indigenous people. They are demanding the dismantling of systems of oppression that have been a mainstay of Canadian society. All of this movement within the backdrop of generational loss due to the over incarceration of Black, indigenous and racialized people and the trauma of the realization that there are many more indigenous children to be found beneath the ground.

Despite all of this, progress continued to be made in this past year in addressing the pandemic of racism in this country. Yet I still fear for the emotional and physical well-being of my children who must traverse a society that sees them as the enemy. I fear that my son will be stopped by law enforcement. I fear for the safety of my daughters when they attend peaceful protests in our city. I fear they will feel that all too familiar pain of being denied opportunities due to not being considered to be “the best fit”.

I await, with a sense of inevitability for my turn to be stopped and asked: “Why are you driving such a nice car? Where are you going? Why are you here?” All of my brothers, my father and other male members of my family have been stopped at least once for “Driving or Walking while Black”. I was not surprised to hear that recently a Black 80 year old, former British Columbia Supreme Court judge was shackled by Vancouver Police in a case of mistaken identity. The same thing happened to his brother 50 years prior. This is the racism we live with on a daily basis, regardless of our socio-economic background. This is the generational reality of being a Black male, or female, in this country. It wears on our souls.

I long for peace of mind.

Floyd’s murder reminds us of the lasting impacts of the African holocaust. It also marked the moment that everything changed. No more counting stucco. There’s work to be done. I’m looking forward to the promise of Emancipation Day, for me, my children and future generations.

Community leader and activist Richard D. Sharpe is the Director, Equity, Anti-racism, Diversity and Inclusion at the Department of Justice Canada

I started writing this piece on the one year anniversary of the killing of George Floyd. It is personal, historical and solution oriented. It is intended to elicit discussion and hopefully action to ensure the energy, hope and commitment generated by this historic moment does not fade. Happy Emancipation Day.

Editor: This article was first published on LinkedIn July 31, 2021


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